The 10 Best Travel Books

I promised myself I wouldn’t touch my book Where Am I? for a month after finishing the first draft. I wanted to see the book with new eyes, not with eyes that just finished a long draft and thought the writing was perfect.

IMG_20160707_191941324I didn’t know how to fill the time I used to spend writing. I started exercising more, picked up extra hours at work, and dedicated some time to my wiiU but still had time left over. I decided to get back to reading. I used to read voraciously but largely put it on hold when I turned to writing 60+ hours per week. I have around 20 books I haven’t read yet sitting on a counter— after finishing two years of not being able to carry more than a couple of books, I got a bit carried away at a used bookstore. I’m not sure if I’m using reading as an excuse to research for the second draft or if I’m using researching the second draft as an excuse to read but I suppose it doesn’t matter.

I did my best to dig through different genres to help with my writing. John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was a great instruction manual on building suspense, as was Not For the Nervous, a collection of short horror stories compiled by Alfred Hitchcock. A biography of Nelson Mandela and Mirror of the Arab World helped me better understand the context of what I had seen over the previous two years, while Confessions of an Economic Hitman was a good (though exaggerated and preachy) view into the mindset of many of the people in Africa and Bolivia I had worked alongside. After reading these and some collections of short stories I decided to dig into travel writing. The others were great for intricate narrative styles, historic context, and introducing other viewpoints, but none held the sense of wonder I feel when I pick up a well-written travel story (or a Calvin and Hobbes collection).

I dug through my bookshelf and pulled out all of my travel books— some fictional tales of adventure, some true stories of self-discovery and heartbreak. A few were dumb stories where the author pulled you alongside him with his magic of describing people and places; others were clumsily written but make up for the poor prose with unbelievable journeys. Then I realized I had turned this into work. I was trying to quantify fun. Sigh.


I quit looking at reading as work and decided stick with my favorite travel books and read them with the sense of wonder they deserve. Here are my ten favorites:

Dark Star Safari

Paul Theroux was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1960s. Forty years later, he decided to go on an overland journey from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa to see how the continent has changed since he had left. Theroux dots the book with the uncomfortable situations and sharp social critiques that many travelers shy away from telling. Dark Star Safari was the book that convinced me I wanted to be an author.

The Alchemist

Paulo Coelho doesn’t waste a word in this fantasy epic about a Spanish shepherd who decides to sell everything he owns to look for treasure he had seen in a dream. Along the way he finds love, danger, disaster, and his Personal Legend.

The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday

Neil MacFarquhar, a reporter who grew up in the Middle East, tells anecdotes from his travels and personal stories of people throughout the Arab world in an attempt to show the other side of the enigmatic region.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin

Mark Twain’s fictional adventure picks up where Tom Sawyer left off and quickly has the protagonist dueling with murderers and con men while trying to make it to the free states with a runaway slave, Jim.

Jawbreaker

Gary Bernsten, a retired CIA field officer, tells his first-hand account of his time operating with tribal militias in Afghanistan to fight Al Qaida and capture Osama bin Laden.

The Hobbit

In the prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, Bilbo Baggins is forced from his comfortable, monotonous daily life into a quest to defeat the dragon Smaug, facing danger and new experiences every step of the way.

Into the Wild

Jon Krakauer captures the life and death of Christopher McCandless, a recent college graduate who burned all of his savings and made his way to Alaska to test himself without modern conveniences.

The Mosquito Coast

Paul Theroux tells the fictional tale of a family who fled to Central America to escape the decadent culture of the United States and start anew, only to find unexpected horrors.

How Not to Travel the World

Lauren Juliff, a disaster-prone hypochondriac seemingly always in the midst of an anxiety attack, sets out to travel the world alone in this memoir. Lauren being Lauren, several disasters ensue and she is forced well out of her comfort zone to find out who she really is.

Band of Brothers

Stephen E. Ambrose’s story of E Company, 506th Airborne Division’s actions in World War II brings you from a training camp in Georgia to final preparations in England, D-Day in France, and the end of the war in Germany, with personal stories giving color to each new mission they faced.

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Honorable mention goes to On The Road, The Beach, The Neverending Story, and Moby Dick, all spectacular tales of adventure and discovery.

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